Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Lazarus Machine: Body Politics in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Lazarus Machine: Body Politics in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun

Article excerpt

Modernity and postmodernity understand total war, medicine, and the loss of the body differently. This essay examines the way Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, both a modern and postmodern text, considers the complicity of the medical community in furthering total war.

I want to make a provocation-proposal requesting that next to the Hall of Machines they put the Hall of Accidents.

--Paul Virilio, Pure War

Lazarus erupts from the crypt and seizes us, the living, who made arrangements to dispose of the dead we thought we controlled (dead for four days!); he's a nasty surprise from a lost space and time, a rupture in the texture of orthodoxy, a signifier of bodily panic for us. Lazarus is bad news for the Pharisees, but he's worse news for humans living in the technosphere, who understand now that death is a temporary lapse in the theology of production. Worse than Banquo's reproachful ghost, Lazarus signifies that the narrative on which we thought we had successfully, if tragically, invoked closure, has been broken open--a rotting annunciation that we got it wrong, the body has to be unwrapped, we're going to have to rethink the future, going to have to make repetition part of our mythology. Sisyphus is dead: long live the Energizer bunny, the new sign for war.

In 1939 Dalton Trumbo published Johnny Got His Gun, a novel based on the true story of a World War I soldier who survived a shell that cost him his arms, legs, mouth, eyes, and nose. The war novel takes place entirely in the protagonist Joe Bonham's head. The novel's first section, "The Dead' shows Joe inching back to sanity; the second, "The Living," sees Joe learn to calculate time and consider the forces that brought him to his bodily prison. Using Morse code, Joe finally contacts the army. Such a summary belies the novel's remarkable strength and its staying power as an anti-war classic. The novel has been variously attacked as a piece of Communist propaganda, as "un-American," and as the product of a sort of ur--Oliver Stone's over-heated brain fever. One of the more sympathetic critics of Johnny Got His Gun notes: "The simplistic good guys--bad guys view of the world is apparent from the very first page; and the Rousseauistic nobility of the much-heralded 'common man' has become an increasing liability " (Kriegel 109).

Trumbo does with his writing what his character Joe Bonham accomplishes with his body: "He would concentrate the whole war into such a small piece of meat and bone and hair that they would never forget it as long as they lived" (225). Trumbo anatomizes modernity's war, flays it for inspection. His concentration of the war into a "small piece of meat" makes the exercise relentlessly personal, and that occasions the novel's weakest moment. When it comes time to push Joe Bonham into the abyss of the socius, Trumbo cannot. Raging against the forces that claustrate Joe in his flesh prison, Trumbo has Joe cry triumphantly: "Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives. [...] You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun" (242-43). Once we acknowledge the failure of Trumbo's romantic conclus ion that the Little Person will control the guns next time, and accept that Trumbo blinks, that he is unable to face his own narrative's logic (the little guy will always already be inscribed by the body without organs), then we can turn back to the text's strengths. Locked in his historicity, Kriegel argues that, "after all, a television newscast on which we see an American marine applying a cigarette lighter to a jungle hut in Vietnam offers a far more graphic portrayal of the horrors of war than Mr. Trumbo ever could have" (108).

Leonard Kriegel lacks Trumbo's historical imagination. …

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